Final British Withdrawal from Basra

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 6 months ago

The Captain’s Journal has provided extensive coverage and commentary of the British misadventure in Basra, and without repeating much of what we have said over the past couple of years, it bears mentioning that the U.K. has turned over security to the U.S. and will complete its withdrawal from Basra.  While we have provided extensive analysis of the devolution of security (e.g., see Calamity in Basra and British Rules of Engagement), a recent Asia Times article gives yet another datum that should have been a warning to the Brits concerning the state of affairs in Basra.

Informed British military opinion has repeatedly castigated the British government’s failure – ever since the war’s outbreak – to adequately resource its own soldiers. For the 2003 invasion of southern Iraq – Operation Telic – the British deployed some 46,000 troops, but rapidly reduced this number to around 9,000. This was in hindsight a highly overconfident decision. Furthermore, the initial British post-invasion strategy focused on the use of counter-insurgency techniques learned in Malaysia and Northern Ireland rather than a surge in numbers as effectively piloted further north in Baghdad in 2006 by US General David Petraeus.

But Basra proved not to be like Belfast at all during the British occupation. In the teeth of a fanatical Shi’ite insurgency from 2004 – led by the Shi’ite Mahdi Army and Iran-linked Badr Brigades – mortar, rocket and roadside bomb attacks plagued the overstretched British contingent badly.

Surge tactics were not used while the British lacked sufficient numbers of helicopters and the types of armored vehicles needed to protect against roadside improvised bombs effectively. Relations between the Basra city police – obviously infiltrated by Shi’ite militants – and the British army during 2005-2006 were uncomfortable to put it mildly.

Equally, the British military’s decision in August 2006 to hand over a forward base at Abu Naji, al-Amarah, to Iraqi security forces – many of whom were likewise linked to Shi’ite insurgent groups – has been criticized consistently. This permitted insurgents a safe haven in which to manufacture roadside devices for use against the British with relative impunity.

The hope is that the Iraqi people will be able to reject Iranian hegemony alone, including ridding its own forces of sympathetic elements.  But at least early on, the ISF simply could not be trusted.  Recall one experience of U.S. forces in Anbar.

About a month ago, the Iraqi brigade, which is predominantly Shiite, was assigned a new area and instructed to stay away from Nasr Wa Salam, Colonel Pinkerton said. But he said he believed that the Iraqi soldiers remain intent on preventing Sunni Arabs, a majority here, from controlling the area. He cites a pattern of aggression by Iraqi troops toward Abu Azzam’s men and other Sunnis, who he believes are often detained for no reason.

Recently, and without warning, Colonel Pinkerton said, 80 Iraqi soldiers in armored vehicles charged out of their sector toward Nasr Wa Salam but were blocked by an American platoon. The Iraqis refused to say where they were going and threatened to drive right through the American soldiers, whom they greatly outnumbered.

Eventually, with Apache helicopter gunships circling overhead and American gunners aiming their weapons at them, the Iraqi soldiers retreated. “It hasn’t come to firing bullets yet,” Colonel Pinkerton said …

Colonel Pinkerton’s experiences here, he said, have inverted the usual American instincts born of years of hard fighting against Sunni insurgents.

“I could stand among 1,800 Sunnis in Abu Ghraib,” he said, “and feel more comfortable than standing in a formation of Iraqi soldiers.”

And one example from Fallujah, 2007.  The Marines fought alongside former insurgents and against hard core insurgents and al Qaeda, and the relationship was one of trust.  As for the Iraqi Security Forces of which people like Nibras Kazimi sing the praises, the Marines would never sleep around them without an armed duty Marine, and without being separated by concertina wire and other indicators of intrusion into their area.  They were treacherous and untrustworthy troops.

The Brits ought to have known than handing a FOB over to the ISF in this area and at this time would have led to safe haven for Iranian-backed insurgents.  They were simply married to COIN doctrine developed in the womb of the relatively safe Northern Ireland.  But the lesson for Iraq, Afghanistan, and indeed, the balance of the world, is that COIN doctrine developed among your own people (who hold to roughly the same religious views, speak the same language, have the same cultural morays, etc.) will lead to large scale dysfunction of your troops when applied anywhere else.  The fault lies not with the enlisted man, but the British Army leadership.


You are currently reading "Final British Withdrawal from Basra", entry #2873 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Basra,British Army,Counterinsurgency,Iraq and was published May 10th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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